Paine, Thomas (1737–1809)

views updated


Thomas Paine, the author, deist, and American revolutionary leader, was born at Thetford, Norfolk, in England. After an inconspicuous start in life as corset maker and customs officer, Paine emigrated at the age of thirty-seven from England to Philadelphia, carrying a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin. Caught up almost immediately in the turmoil of the developing revolution, Paine published Common Sense (January 1776), the first public appeal for American independence as well as the pioneer enunciation of the diplomatic doctrine of avoiding European entanglements. In addition to attacking hereditary aristocracy, Paine expounded the theory that government and society are distinct entities and are not to be confounded, a theory also developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and later by William Godwin.

During subsequent stages of the American Revolution, Paine wrote a number of influential newspaper essays, including a famous series, the Crisis, concerned with particular political, economic, and military issues. In order to extend his reputation to Europe, Paine wrote the Letter to the abbé Raynal, on the Affairs of North America (1783), refuting among other concepts of the French philosophes, the assertion that the Revolution concerned only economic issues and had no moral foundation. A confident affirmation of the idea of progress was incorporated in Paine's notions that the circle of civilization was soon to be completed and that commerce and science had already combined to improve the world to the point where there no longer existed a need to make war for profit.

After the American victory, Paine proceeded to France to seek financial support for an iron bridge of his own invention, once again carrying letters of recommendation from Franklin. In January 1790 he began a work defending Lafayette and the principles of the revolution that had broken out in France, a work that he later converted to an attack on Edmund Burke's highly critical Reflections on the French Revolution. The resulting treatise, The Rights of Man (Part I, 1791; Part II, 1792), gave a solid theoretical basis to the contingent appeals of Paine's American journalism. Affirming that government should be founded on reason rather than on tradition or precedent, Paine argued that democracya society in which all men have equal rights and in which leadership depends upon talent and wisdomis superior to aristocracy. Although his political principles resemble those of John Locke, Paine later maintained that they were based entirely on his own reasoning and that he had never read the works of the English philosopher.

As a result of his republican writings, Paine was made an honorary citizen of France and in September 1792 he was elected to the French National Convention, taking his seat later that month.

Disturbed by the dogmatic atheism of the French revolutionary leaders, Paine began a treatise on religion, The Age of Reason, ostensibly a defense of deism but primarily an attack on Christianity. In Part I (1794), he rejected all forms of supernatural revelation in favor of the religion of nature, elevating, as he put it, reason and scientific observation over the three modes of superstition in Christianity: mystery, miracle, and prophecy. In Part II (1795), Paine continued to praise "the Perfection of the Deity," even though he exposed the abuses of Christianity with such vehemence that he brought upon himself the inaccurate accusation of opposing religion itself.

Although Paine dismissed the miracles of Christianity, he was later ready to believe that providence intervened in his own life. The story is incredible, but it reflects Paine's egoism. Because of his moderate policies in the Convention, particularly in an appeal to save Louis XVI from the guillotine, he was dismissed from the Convention and incarcerated in Luxembourg Prison. On his return to America, Paine explained that the cell doors of prisoners destined for execution were customarily marked with a number, and he argued that divine providence had protected him by causing his jailer to place the fatal number by mistake on the inside of his door so that it could not be seen the next morning.

One must turn to Paine's minor works to discover the positive side of his deism. His proof of the existence of God (in "A Discourse at the Society of Theophilanthropists") adopts essentially the same reasoning that Isaac Newton had used in a series of letters to an Anglican clergyman, Richard Bentley. Since the laws of mechanics, the argument runs, cannot explain the origin of motion, there must have been an external first cause to give the planets their original rotation. Paine stressed the concept of the plurality of worlds and assumed absolute moral laws. In "Private Thoughts on a Future State," he expressed a faith in an immortality strikingly different from that of most deists. The good people, he believed, would be happy in another world; the wicked would be punished; and those in betweenthe indifferent oneswould be "dropped entirely." Although contending that religion should be a private affair between each man and his creator, he insisted that no rational mind could logically reconcile new science and old Christianity.

Unable to adjust to French political life under Napoleon Bonaparte, Paine returned to America in 1802, where he was welcomed by liberal Jeffersonians but excoriated by most Federalists. Although he contributed extensively to newspapers under his revolutionary pseudonym of "Common Sense," he failed to regain his earlier influence and died in obscurity.

Paine, as much as any thinker of his age, was obsessed with the notion of the order and uniformity of nature, and he delighted in establishing parallels between one branch of learning and another. He believed that the fundamental laws of nature operative in religion, natural science, and politics were clear, simple, and within the reach of the average man. He developed no epistemology as such but combined a type of Quaker inner light with deistic reason. The fundamental weakness of his systema weakness shared by most deistsis that he nowhere took up the problem of evil. Although he lavishly praised God for the regularity of the universe, the only suffering he noticed is that caused by social injustice.

Yet even though Paine was more influential as an agitator than as a theorist, he certainly understood and upheld the ideals of the Enlightenment and deserves to be ranked as one of America's outstanding philosophes.

See also Deism; Democracy; Egoism and Altruism; Enlightenment; Evil, The Problem of; Franklin, Benjamin; Godwin, William; Locke, John; Newton, Isaac; Political Philosophy, History of; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.


works by paine

Writings of Thomas Paine. 4 vols, edited by Moncure D. Conway. New York. 18941896.

Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. 2 vols, edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: Citadel Press, 1945.

works on paine

Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. New York, 1959.

Ayer, A. J. Thomas Paine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Claeys, Gregory. Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought. London: Routledge, 1989.

Conway, Moncure D. Life of Thomas Paine. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1892.

Dyck, Ian, ed. Citizen of the World: Essays on Thomas Paine. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Russell, Bertrand. "The Fate of Thomas Paine." In Why I Am Not a Christian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Alfred Owen Aldridge (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)